Early in 2009 I attended a talk by Professor Ray Land of the University of Strathclyde on the topic of ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge’, a topic that I think provides some exciting insights into how students learn and why students struggle with different subjects. I found the talk transformed the way I think about teaching and learning.
Threshold concepts is the idea that within different disciplines there are specific concepts that are so transformative in their nature that they lead to ‘new and previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something.’ (Meyer and Land, 2006). Such concepts can be described as being:
Transformative — once fully comprehended, they can alter one’s perception of the subject, or of life in general.
Irreversible — once mastered it is difficult to return to one’s previous way of thinking.
Integrative — the new concept is integrated into one’s existing way of thinking.
Troublesome — these concepts may be counter intuitive and initially difficult to understand. They may also clash with currently held values and conflict with one’s current world view (e.g. evolution may conflict with religious values). Hence the term troublesome knowledge.
Bounded — such concepts may ‘demarcate subject boundaries’ (Ako Aotearoa website)
So how do these concepts inform and assist us in teaching? Well, if we can identify threshold concepts in our subjects and work on ways to help students to understand them then we are better placed to help students to truly master our subjects, instead of rote learning facts in order to ‘pass’ the exam. In my opinion the mastering of threshold concepts not only provides for much a deeper understanding of a subject but is also more likely to ignite the passion of a student for the subject.
Examples of troublesome knowledge in my subject area, chemistry, would include equilibria, the kinetic theory of matter, and atomic structure.
Professor Land also made the point that it is not always easy for educators to recognise threshold concepts, because we have already ‘crossed’ these various thresholds of learning, sometimes with no difficulty, and once these thresholds have been crossed it can be difficult to remember how one thought before this knowledge was gained (e.g. threshold concepts are transformative, irreversible and integrative).
I would be interested in hearing from the various readers of sciblogs what concepts in their own areas of expertise they would consider to be threshold concepts.